Seijun Suzuki leaves behind a manic, blood-steeped legacy that paved the way for Park Chan-wook, Quentin Tarantino, and many others.
A man walks into a bar. It’s a familiar scenario, yet something is amiss—it's more of trundle than a walk, and the man lacks the usual tough-guy veneer. He has an almost ludicrous look, cherubic instead of menacing, with artificially plump cheeks that suggest a face accustomed to the feeling of fists, yet which also give him a shade of reluctant innocence. He looks like a child trying to grow up too fast. He slumps into a seat, knocks back a few drinks, smacks around an escort girl. When he’s done, he refuses to pay his hefty bill. But this is a gangster's bar—this is a gangster movie, naturally—and the goons soon emerge. They escort this baby-faced brutalizer to the backroom, a fishbowl-like office encased with soundproof glass. They put a gun on him, and he promptly takes it away. He cracks the nameless henchman in the head repeatedly while the boss watches, amused. By the time he leaves the bar, he has a job as the gangster's new muscle.
His name is Joe. He's the good guy. A former cop out for revenge, he manipulates the unknowing gangsters with his own brand of brutal finesse.
Seijun Suzuki was a hired-gun turned-auteur.
Joe isn't much different from his progenitor, hired-gun turned-auteur Seijun Suzuki, who similarly operated on the QT right in front of his employers. Suzuki (born Seitaro Suzuki), who died on February 13, in Tokyo, at the age of 93, was a manipulative sneak; he took on mundane gangster projects and laced them with his own bizarre style—phantasmagoric, exaggerated, sometimes vibrant and sometimes starkly black-and-white and washed out, a histrionic masquerade of men with guns.
The scene described above is from The Youth of the Beast (1963), Suzuki's commercial breakthrough and his first major artistic statement, a twisty affair as hard to grasp as it is to look away from. It possesses a slick self-awareness that sometimes verges on self-abuse, with the film acknowledging its own pulp fiction foibles while slugging viewers in the face with jarring bursts of pizzaz. A sort of Yojimbo-derived story of a drifter playing both sides of a gang war (a war he spurs, of course), it marks the turning point in Suzuki’s career. The hired gun grew tired of his blood-by-the-numbers jobs and started to imbue his movies with a rapturous visual style of honed excess, and he was punished for it.
The Youth of the Beast is the best entry point for Seijun's erratic body of work. It remains one of his best and presents a kind of nihilistic chic that descends deeper into darkness with each new reveal. The film’s star, Joe Shoshido, had previously worked with the director on two lesser films, but here Suzuki found his quintessential mighty man, an actor seemingly possessed by unspoken anger, searching for redemption for a sin that’s never revealed. His malaise and volatile temper wouldn't feel so out of place in a Peckinpah film. The movie made the director the go-to guy for adapting sleazy yakuza movies quickly and cheaply. It also became a double-edged sword by which Suzuki's career would soon die, less than four years later.
A counterculture icon in his native country, Seijun remains largely unknown in the west, despite the best efforts of The Criterion Collection.
While something of a counterculture icon in his native country, Seijun remains largely unknown in the west, despite the best efforts of The Criterion Collection, which has released gorgeously restored versions of some of his most important works, including Story of a Prostitute, Gate of Flesh, Youth of the Beast, and his most well-known masterpieces Tokyo Drifter (spine number 39) and Branded to Kill (38). Many of his films aren’t available legally on VOD in the United States, which made the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2015 retrospective a profound engagement for fans of Japanese cinema.
The oddball's odd-job oeuvre is replete with partial gems—movies that, despite their narrative banality, evoke post-war Japan’s collective unrest and ennui. Suzuki manipulated the film system, skulking in the seediest annals of Japanese cinema. His insolence is evident in his early comedy Eight Hours of Terror (a sort of sillier Wages of Fear) and his lesser-recognized films, like Passport to Darkness and Tattooed Life.
Seijun was an assistant director at Shochiku, one of Japan's most vital production companies, before moving to Nikkatsu, which earned a reputation, thanks to Suzuki, as a bastion of experimental B-movies during the 1960s. Though he didn't necessarily pick his projects (he allegedly only ever turned down two or three films), Suzuki’s films are pervaded by recurring themes. They often concern brothers or friends betraying or avenging each other, foils who converge in order to find out who each man really is.
It's fitting, then, that he was betrayed by the suits who owned his contract because he disobeyed orders. After Branded to Kill, the black-and-white send-up of yakuza movie cliches that is now considered his opus, Nikkatsu dropped Seijun. Over 12 years, he made 40 films for them. He wouldn't work again for a decade. His career could be one of the pulpy narratives thrown to him, with orders to turn in a complete picture in one month. There's a discernible arc—an ascension, a fall, penance, a stab at retribution and, finally, a long-gestating legacy—to his strange life, from the grindhouse double bills of his early efforts to the protean chaos of Tokyo Drifter, a film whose story means next to nothing, but whose visual elegance means everything; it is style as stream-of-consciousness.
In the grandiose and gaudy, Suzuki taps into deep, dark cultural anxieties. He plumbs the depths of human wickedness in both genders while inadvertently excavating the gender politics of Japan at the time. Prostitution, in various forms, permeates his films, from his acclaimed Story of a Prostitute to his most pessimistic movie, Gate of Flesh, the film in which he first perfected his bold, color-coordinated style that defines the subsequent Tokyo Drifter.
Suzuki made manic, blood-steeped art pieces; the stories progress with the spasmodic geometry of crime scene spatter patterns.
Gate of Flesh chronicles the plight of a coterie of prostitutes who live in the skeletal ruins of Tokyo, where Japanese and American soldiers still patrol chain link fences and children play among heaps of rubble. The lurid story of women who sell their bodies for the same going rate as beef (50 yen a pound) and the young soldier (Shoshido) with whom they all become infatuated, it would make a sublime double-billing with Sofia Coppola's upcoming The Beguiled. Suzuki juxtaposes the unfortunate lives of streetwalkers with the bombed-out buildings and concrete carrion of a city still smoldering. The body politic—and the politics of bodies—are rendered as tragic as anything done during the war. His depictions of a decrepit place (Tokyo) and time (post-World War II) have an alienated, yet tropical splendor to it: Ozu by way of Lichtenstein. The anemic city whose wounds won't heal is mottled by the festering colors of rage and lust.
Suzuki had 10 days to prep for the film, 25 to shoot, and three to edit; he purloined sets and props from warehouses on backlots, which gives the film the feeling of a fairytale forgotten and left to rot.
Lawrence Alloway wrote, "The communication system of the 20th century is, in a special sense, Pop Art's subject." Suzuki communicated with chaos, and would increasingly jettison narrative coherence as his films fractured and splintered into manic, blood-steeped art pieces; the stories progress with the spasmodic geometry of crime scene spatter patterns. He used widescreen photography and deeply saturated colors to conjure dream-like auras. His best films play like melanges of violence and sex, with syncopated jazzy rhythms more Mingus than Miles.
His approach to filmmaking is encapsulated in Tattooed Life. It starts as one of his more straightforward post-Youth efforts, traipsing through a standard story of a former yakuza and his brother on the lam for most of its runtime. But in the final act, Suzuki goes balls-out bonkers. It’s a jarring change. To signify the encroaching climax and all the blood that will be spilled, the reformed yakuza sheds his outer layer of clothes dramatically and the sky abruptly changes color, appearing like the viscera of the gods streaming down the horizon. The sets become stark, an inky blackness enveloping the backgrounds as our yakuza protagonist advances in a manner that predicts the side-scrolling brawlers of the '90s, as well as the iconic hallway fight scene from Park Chan-wook's opus Oldboy.
The influence of Suzuki’s immaculate compositions and surreal lapses of physical logic, the camera passing through the floor for jarring low-angles, can also be felt in fellow Criterion refugee Lady Snowblood and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Suzuki will be remembered for his frames-within-frames, the Day-Glo colors eschewing all sense of reality.
It's as if the unrepentant director had been waiting for the producers to turn around so he could make the movie he'd been dying to make all along.